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attention

Good Night, Sleep Tight: What if I Can’t Sleep Right?

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By: Moira Creedon, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

The American Psychological Association recently issued a press release about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our dreaming. Not surprisingly, the information in four published articles indicates that people are having more anxious dreams now. This seems obvious given the emotional toll and high levels of stress as everyone juggles work, virtual school, health and safety, and family needs in a pandemic. We have an overflowing plate of stress on our hands with distant notions of when this stress will end. While these articles describe the anxious dreaming and sleep of adults, it’s not a stretch to consider that children and teens may have disrupted sleep right now. Their plates are overflowing, too, as they manage virtual and hybrid learning, confusing social demands, less movement and exercise than usual, and less contact with both adults and kids.

We cannot underestimate the importance of sleep to our system. Sleep is when our body restores itself, builds important immune functions and consolidates memories and learning. When children do not get enough sleep, we can see a whole host of problems, including issues with attention, concentration, learning, irritability, poor emotion regulation and risky behaviors in addition to the physical health outcomes.

What do we do to help our kids and teens get more and better sleep? It’s time to get sleep hygiene back on track. It’s possible to do even if the pandemic has caused the norm to drastically shift. Here are some tips for promoting sleep for children and teens:

Establish a consistent schedule. I cannot emphasize this one enough. Establish consistent times for settling down for bed and waking up that are the same every day of the week. Try to stick to this schedule whether your child is having an in-person learning day or remote, whether it is a weekend or weekday. This can be tricky with teenagers who tend to sleep in on weekend days. Try to stick within an hour, if possible, to get your body on a more consistent schedule. Avoid naps during the day if you can, even if there has been a rough night of sleep (or limit naps to less than 30 minutes). Daytime napping can interrupt night sleep patterns.

Develop a routine to settle for bed. Children and teens need to settle down for bed gradually. We can’t go from wide awake to peaceful slumber in a few moments. Limit screen time 30 minutes before bed as the light that is given off by televisions, phones or other devices confuses our systems and causes delays in releasing melatonin (the magic sleep hormone). Choose the same relaxing activity each night. Children and teens can read (or listen to a story read aloud by a parent), listen to an audiobook, color in special coloring book, listen to music or a podcast, or take a warm bath or shower. Include your child or teen in conversations about what relaxing activity to try before bed. Keep the same activity for several weeks before trying other ones. The brain does not want variety when you are trying to settle for bed, or it can become more alert in the face of a novel activity. The routine promotes relaxation.

Schedule talk time. Children and teens tend to think about their day as they are laying down. This can lead to “just one more thing” that kids have to tell us or one more question. They can also anticipate what is happening next, which can lead to an increase in anxiety. Schedule a “talk time” with your child or teen to discuss the day and think ahead to tomorrow. Do this at least 30 minutes before bedtime (ideally closer to dinnertime) to avoid a lengthy conversation that can activate anxiety. Use this time to validate feelings and model problem-solving about any issues coming up.

Provide comfort after dreams. We can expect that everyone may wake up at some point after an anxiety dream. If we can predict it, it can make it feel less overwhelming. Teach children and teens what to do when they wake up feeling anxious, including seeking the support of their parent for the very upsetting ones. Offer comfort and a tuck back into bed. Encourage your child to talk about how to resolve the frightening dream in a way that is silly, funny or triumphant to shift the focus away from what felt upsetting. Have a scary dream about a monster? Imagine him having to perform a ballet while balancing hot sauce on his head. Have an anxiety dream about a teacher yelling at you for forgetting your homework? Imagine turning it in and your teacher leading the rest of class in a celebratory song. You can also encourage children or teens to think of their favorite movie or book, and ask them to close their eyes and replay the movie or book to refocus the mind.

Practice breathing. To soothe our overactive anxiety systems, practice taking deep breaths. Imagine your breath filling up the back of your lungs and visualize the air going through your body. Practice circle breathing where air comes in one nostril and out the other (of course it comes in and goes out both!).  With younger kids, a little modeling helps. You can also encourage kids and teens to tense different parts of their body, hold for a count of 10, and then release to feel more relaxed.

Reach out for help. If your child or teen has persistent trouble with sleep, contact your pediatrician. It may be time for a more thorough evaluation to rule out sleep disorders, medical causes or behavioral patterns that signal a bigger sleep problem.

 

For more information, please check out these resources:

American Psychological Association (APA) press release related to dreaming:  https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/09/upsetting-dreams-covid-19

Fantastic APA resource on sleep: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/07/ce-corner-sleep

What To Do When You Dread Your Bed: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Problems with Sleep (2008) by Dawn Huebner, Ph.D.

 

About the Author: 

Dr. Creedon has expertise in evaluating children and teens with a variety of presenting issues. She is interested in uncovering an individual’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses to best formulate a plan for intervention and success. With experiences providing therapy and assessments, Dr. Creedon bridges the gap between testing data and therapeutic services to develop a clear roadmap for change and deeper of understanding of individual needs.

 

If you are interested in booking an evaluation with Dr. Creedon or another NESCA neuropsychologist, please fill out and submit our online intake form

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

OTs’ Remote Learning Equipment Tips!

By | NESCA Notes 2020

Co-authored by: Sophie Bellenis OTD, OTR/L and Jessica Hanna MSOT, OTR/L

With the momentous shift in education this year, many families are looking for support with the remote learning or hybrid learning process. Children are facing new barriers to education, such as inability to focus within the home setting, inappropriate work space and lack of independence with attention, initiation and motivation. Fortunately, many fabulous educators are stepping up to the plate, acknowledging these struggles and advocating on behalf of their students. Many families are working to help in their efforts by finding new products, tricks, tools or strategies to help promote learning and access to curriculums. Some of these products are gimmicky tools promising a “quick fix.” Some of these new tricks and tools may be beneficial, but today we are going to advocate for getting back to the basics and truly analyzing how best to use, set up and care for the foundational tools that children currently employ for learning. If using these tips feels difficult or is not helping your child to achieve the level of focus and commitment to learning that they need, we recommend reaching out to your school-based occupational therapist or getting an occupational therapy evaluation.

Things to Consider:

Laptops/Tablets

  • Basic Functionality – Your child is never too young to be part of the process. Teaching your child basic functionalities of their computer and tablet, as well as specific platform features is hugely important. Your child may find a visual checklist helpful to recall what basic features do, where to find them and when it is ok to use them.
  • Keep Screens Clean – As expected, kids often touch everything and anything, including computer and tablet screens. Make sure to check and wipe down screens to limit glare and distortion caused by sticky little fingers. Encourage your child to respect and handle their device with care.
  • Screen Height – According to the American Optometric Association, most people find looking at screens more comfortable when their gaze is pointed slightly down. Ideally, try to set up a computer screen with the center of the screen about 15-20 degrees below eye level (AOA, n.d.). This may be especially tricky with little learners, who tend to crane their necks up to look at a monitor or laptop screen, or students who tend to set their laptop way down on their lap.
  • Screen Distance – To decrease eye strain, try to position a screen about 20-28 inches away from the eyes (AOA, n.d.). Recent evidence shows that there is a significant increase in visual symptoms, such red eyes, blurriness and visual fatigue in individuals who look at screens from a distance of 10 inches or less (Chiemeke, Akhahowa, & Ajayi, 2007). While it is easy to set a computer a certain distance away, make sure that children are not holding an iPad or phone right up to their face during the school day.
  • Simplify Access to School Webpages and Links – Make sure that when your child opens up the computer, they can quickly and easily access all of their school websites and links for Zoom, Google Classroom, etc. One easy way to do this is by creating shortcuts on the desktop or having a visual guide printed next to them for exactly how to access their work.
  • Limit Access to Distracting Apps or Webpages – Is there a way to disable your child’s access to games and apps during school hours? While our students are working hard to attend to remote learning, the pull of distracting digital fun may be too enticing to pass up. Consider looking into some of parental control options on your device.
  • Learn the Limitations of Chromebooks – Due to the digital demands of remote learning, many school districts and community organizations are providing Chromebooks for students to use at home. While this is excellent and allows students access to the curriculum, some of these devices have limitations, such as not allowing communication to certain website or software platforms. Consider reaching out to your district if you need your child’s device to allow communication with an outside therapist or service provider.
  • Back Up Your Personal Work – Many families are sharing one computer or device between multiple family members. It is important to make sure that any important documents, folders or programs are fully backed up before giving a computer to your student. Accidents happen, and children can quickly delete files without meaning to! Creating a separate user login for each family member allows different privileges for each user and helps keep work separate and organized.
  • Say No to Open Drinks! – Water bottles with a lid will help to prevent any hardware damage from spills.

 Extra Equipment

  • Invest in a Mouse – Using a touchpad often requires substantially more fine motor precision and finger isolation than using a mouse. Most devices can connect with a mouse either through a USB port or a Bluetooth connection.
  • Headphones – Different children may benefit from different types of headphones. Some of our learners need earbuds or overhead headphones during Zoom meetings to help them attend to the class going on virtually. Some of our students may prefer being in a quiet space and listening to their teacher and classmates out loud. Additionally, some students may benefit from wearing noise cancelling headphones during independent work to limit the distraction from noises in their environment.
  • External Camera – Using an external camera that is not embedded in a computer or laptop may be helpful for our students who need movement or want to look at a screen while a teacher or therapist observes their work. An external camera pointed down at a student’s hand during an activity can help a therapist to evaluate a child’s fine and gross motor movements, while the student still sees a friendly face up on the screen.
  • Chargers – Help your children remember to keep their devices fully charged and to transport their charger between school and home if necessary. Many students benefit from a visual checklist when packing their bag for the next day. Chargers are hugely important for students who need to access their curriculum and may be especially difficult for students learning in a hybrid model.

 

References

American Optometric Association. (n.d.). Computer vision syndrome. Retrieved from https://www.aoa.org/patients-and-public/ caring-for-your-vision/protecting-your-vision/ computer-vision-syndrome?sso=y

Chiemeke S.C., Akhahowa A.E., Ajayi O.B. (2007) Evaluation of vision-related problems amongst computer users: a case study of university of Benin, Nigeria. Proceedings of the World Congress on Engineering. London: International Association of Engineers.

 

About the Co-authors:

Dr. Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in educational OT and functional life skills development. Dr. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as a part of the Real-life Skills Program within NESCA’s Transition Services team. Dr. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Having spent years delivering direct services at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, Dr. Bellenis has extensive background with school-based occupational therapy services.  She believes that individual sensory needs and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.

 

Jessica Hanna has over 10 years of pediatric OT experience in conducting assessments and providing treatment of children and adolescents with a broad range of challenges and disabilities, including autism spectrum disorders, sensory processing disorders, visual impairments, cerebral palsy, executive function deficits and developmental disorders of motor function. Prior to joining NESCA, Jessica trained and worked in a variety of settings, including inpatient and outpatient hospital settings, private practice, schools and homes. She has served on interdisciplinary treatment teams and worked closely with schools, medical staff and other service providers in coordinating care. In addition, Jessica provided occupational therapy services at Perkins School for the Blind and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital pediatric inpatient unit, where she conducted comprehensive evaluations and interventions for children with a broad range of presentations.

 

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

The Ideal Remote Learning Workspace

By | NESCA Notes 2020

Co-authored by: Sophie Bellenis OTD, OTR/L and Jessica Hanna MSOT, OTR/L

Designated Space for Schoolwork – Make sure to set up a workspace with intention. While it may be easy to have children hop on the couch or sit at the kitchen table, having a space that is specifically used for academics will help them to compartmentalize and associate the space with focus and learning. There should be a concrete difference between a place to work and a place of rest. Ensure that this space is distraction-free and set away from the hustle and bustle of the home. Give your child some autonomy by allowing them to decorate their space and take ownership. A small desk, a card table in a quiet corner or a small bedside table set up in a private space are all options for workstations that children can make their own.

Remove Distractions – Take a moment to sit down at your child’s workstation and note any potential distractions. Some will jump right out, such as a TV or box of enticing toys within their line of sight, but some may be less obvious. Are they near a window facing a busy street or a dog park? Is there a substantial amount of visual clutter around their desk, such as busy posters or a family photo collage? Is their desk covered in mail, knickknacks, or arts and crafts supplies? If removing items is not an option, consider creating a physical barrier between your child and any environmental distractions by using a desktop study carrel/shield. Taking these distractions away will help a student to focus their energy on attending to school, as opposed to ignoring it and resisting distractions.

Organize Materials – Depending on your child’s age, they may need help organizing their workspace to be prepared for the day. For our young students, consider using toolboxes or tabletop organizers to hold their materials. A toolbox may have crayons, markers, scissors, pencils, erasers and glue sticks. If your child benefits from sensory supports, consider a toolbox with manipulatives, as appropriate per occupational therapy (OT) recommendations. Children are often very visual learners and may benefit from color-coded or designated folders for each subject or class they are taking. If a workspace is shared, keep your child’s personal materials all in one location, such as a personalized storage container that is easily portable, accessible and organized. Finally, remember to consider digital organization. Students are often told how to label and save documents by teachers at school. With the move to remote learning, children may need assistance organizing documents, folders and classwork on their computer so that they can easily find everything in the moment.

Adequate Lighting – Assess the lighting in your student’s workspace by checking to see whether there is any glare from the sun on the screen, whether they could benefit from a desk lamp to better illuminate their paper and determine whether there is a specific location with good natural light. If natural light is preferred, it’s best practice to position your electronic at a right angle to the light so the light is neither in front nor behind the screen. Avoid fluorescent light bulbs whenever possible. One more thing to consider is the fact since this past March, students and professionals alike have noticed an increase in headaches and visual fatigue due to spending substantial portions of the day in front of a screen. Technology is visually straining. Consider investing in a pair of blue light-reducing glasses, a newly popular solution to this problem that has shown promise for improving adolescent sleep, mood and activity levels (Algorta et al., 2018).

The Rule of 90 Degrees – When sitting at a table, children’s hips, knees and elbows should all be positioned at 90 degrees. Feet must be firmly planted on the floor. This helps to create a solid foundation. When children have a strong foundation and postural stability, they are set up to freely and accurately use their fine motor skills. Being grounded allows for easier writing, typing, cutting and manipulation of all the tools necessary for learning.

Appropriate Furniture – To meet the Rule of 90, it is important to consider the furniture that your student is using. Furniture needs to be the correct size or be modified to help children fit comfortably. If a desk/table is positioned too high, it will cause extra strain and fatigue. If your child’s feet do not reach the floor, consider using a step stool or fortified box for their feet. With regard to the chair itself, avoid options that spin and slide around as they are often distracting and make it difficult for children to pay attention.

 

 

 

References

Perez Algorta, G., Van Meter, A., Dubicka, B. et al. Blue blocking glasses worn at night in first year higher education students with sleep complaints: a feasibility study. Pilot Feasibility Stud 4, 166 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40814-018-0360-y

 

About the Co-authors:

Dr. Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in educational OT and functional life skills development. Dr. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as a part of the Real-life Skills Program within NESCA’s Transition Services team. Dr. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Having spent years delivering direct services at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, Dr. Bellenis has extensive background with school-based occupational therapy services.  She believes that individual sensory needs and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.

 

Jessica Hanna has over 10 years of pediatric OT experience in conducting assessments and providing treatment of children and adolescents with a broad range of challenges and disabilities, including autism spectrum disorders, sensory processing disorders, visual impairments, cerebral palsy, executive function deficits and developmental disorders of motor function. Prior to joining NESCA, Jessica trained and worked in a variety of settings, including inpatient and outpatient hospital settings, private practice, schools and homes. She has served on interdisciplinary treatment teams and worked closely with schools, medical staff and other service providers in coordinating care. In addition, Jessica provided occupational therapy services at Perkins School for the Blind and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital pediatric inpatient unit, where she conducted comprehensive evaluations and interventions for children with a broad range of presentations.

 

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Sensory and Motor Strategies to Support Online Learning

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By: Julie Robinson, OT

Director of Clinical Services; Occupational Therapist, NESCA

For many families, this spring’s experience of remote learning and receiving integrated services was challenging, to say the least. As parents begin to think about their children returning to school this fall questions and concerns arise, not only about regression, but also how they will keep their children engaged in online learning.

For children with sensory processing difficulties and/or motor delays, there may be additional challenges in participating in Zoom classes and remote group learning. Some may have difficulty sustaining their attention, settling their body down to sit in front of a screen, managing the visual challenges of a screen, engaging socially or transitioning from a desired task to an academic one. Below are some suggested strategies, from an OT perspective, that may help your child participate in academics with less stress.

Regulation Strategies

The term “regulation” refers to someone’s ability to match their level of alertness (or arousal) to the environment and an activity. Throughout the day, our brain and our bodies are working to either increase or decrease our arousal levels for us to feel regulated and feel “just right” for the situation.

Sometimes children may have trouble with regulating themselves, causing them to experience dysregulation. Dysregulation can look very different depending on the child and can present as low levels of arousal or high level of arousal. This state may make it challenging for the child to be engaged and participate in certain activities, such as online learning. Sensory strategies are ways to help a child either increase arousal or lower arousal to match the needs of the task of online learning.

If a child is experiencing a low level of arousal, or their engine is running low, they should use a sensory strategy to help feel more alert. These include activities that have fast movement and increase heart rate. Taking movement breaks throughout the day is key! This could mean:

  • Jumping Jacks
  • Frog jumps or jumping on a trampoline
  • Playing at an outdoor playground
  • Creating an obstacle course
  • Doing something as simple as taking a walk around the house
  • Using a sit and spin or bouncing on a therapy ball
  • Hanging from a chin-up bar

If a child is experiencing a high level of arousal and their engine is running high, a sensory strategy to help them feel calm is beneficial. Calming strategies tend to be slower and more rhythmic. Ways to help slow down a child’s engine include:

  • “Heavy work,” such as wall push-ups, carrying books, laundry or groceries, wheelbarrow walk or crab walk can do the trick.
  • Yoga poses. Cosmic Kids Yoga on YouTube has some good videos with stories to encourage young children.
  • Creating a “sensory space” that is quiet and free from distractions. This could be a beanbag chair in the corner, a pop-up tent or a space behind a piece of furniture.
  • Using a weighted/heavy blanket or doing work on the ground with pillows underneath while spending time online may help your child to settle his or her body down. Explore the use of a therapy ball, T-stool, Move and Sit cushion or bike pedals that go under a chair to help kids who have difficulty sitting still.
  • Tactile play can be very calming for some children. Make a bucket of beans and hide small objects in it. Working with Playdough, shaving cream or water play can also help.
  • Encourage deep breathing to promote relaxation. Blow soap bubbles with a straw, pretend to blow out candles or blow a pinwheel.
  • An icy drink or popsicle can prove calming for many children. Or allow them to chew gum while learning to facilitate attention.

Strategies for Transition into Online Learning

As the new school year approaches, the change of routine into online learning may be a challenge for some kids. Here are some strategies to help your child adjust:

  • Create a clear schedule for your child that they can follow throughout the day (and make sure to schedule in plenty of breaks!). It may be helpful to use visuals or pictures, similar to a preschool schedule to help structure the time.
  • Make time for movement breaks around the house or outside. It may help to engage in a movement activity for 10-15 minutes before settling into an online class.
  • Use timers when needed (apps that have a visual timer, such as “Time Timer,” can be beneficial).
  • Create a designated space for the child to do their learning and make it their own.
  • Factor in a reward for good participation at the end of a virtual learning session, particularly for a child who seems resistant to remote learning.
  • Practice some brief online learning opportunities before school begins and slowly increase the time incrementally. Conduct Zoom calls with grandparents or other relatives where they read to the child to help maintain their attention. Search on YouTube together for some craft activities to follow along with. Khan Academy and Outschool have all kinds of online lessons for kids of all ages.

 Preventing Visual Fatigue in Online Learning

Along with the many challenges that come with online learning, the constant staring at electronics can cause strain or fatigue on the eyes. Eye strain can present as headaches, blurry vision, tired eyes and neck aches. In this world of virtual learning, it is more important than ever to help kids with strategies to prevent digital eye strain. Here are some strategies:

  • Turn down the screen brightness and turn up the contrast on screen settings.
  • Every 15-20 minutes, make sure to take a break from looking at the screen; set timers if needed. Sometimes placing your hands over your eyes and staring into them with open eyes can help. No matter what the day’s schedule is, always encourage a break from looking at the screen when needed.
  • Zoom in when text is too small.
  • Set limits for recreational use of electronics and avoid electronics before bed.
  • Sit in an ergonomically proper position when using the computer. This means keeping feet flat on the floor, lower back supported and shoulders related, and arms at a right angle.
  • Position the screen to avoid glare and use natural lighting as much as possible.
  • For a child who may have difficulty looking back and forth from a screen to paper, it may help to place the paper on a contrasting background of red or yellow.

 

About the Author

Julie Robinson is an occupational therapist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician. The work Julie does is integral to human development, wellness and a solid family unit. She particularly enjoys supporting families through the process of adoption and in working with children who are victims of trauma. Julie has extensive experience working with children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or who have learning or emotional disabilities. She provides services that address Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and self-regulation challenges, as well as development of motor and executive functioning skills.

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Simple Executive Functioning Strategies When The World Is Anything But Simple

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By: Moira Creedon, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

Whether your children have returned to school full-time, on a hybrid model or fully virtual learning, we are all juggling. Juggling work demands, family demands, household demands and educational demands in a time of remarkable uncertainty. The start of the school year typically brings the smell of fresh school supplies and our best organizational efforts, but many of us may feel hesitant to use organizing strategies to manage our lives. Why? Because our lives are unpredictable and anything but typical these days. If you’re hesitating to use pen on a calendar, I hear you!

The ability to plan and employ organizational strategies is a key task of our executive functioning system. It’s what allows us to coordinate multiple schedules, dance and sports practices, projects at work, PTO bake sale reminders, and get out the door each day on time. I have been hesitant to adopt routines because I recall vividly how all those plans imploded in March when the world stood still. I hear the buzz about how school will end up fully remote so “put it all down in pencil before it all changes.”  Maybe that will prove true, but in the meantime, let’s consider the ways that we can rally our executive systems to do what they do best: plan, organize and regulate. Some suggestions for how to do this now while the world is unpredictable:

  1. Adopt the Sunday Game Plan. Put information in a family or personal calendar once a week. Spend a few moments on Sunday night catching up on plans for the coming week. Even if we end up transitioning from “hybrid” to “remote” (or all remote), this planning routine can still be adopted. Conclude your Sunday Game Plan by previewing what may be coming the week after in the event of long-term projects. While the content of your game plan may change, the structure can remain consistent.
  2. Keep a consistent schedule for sleep for the family. When we were all in school and work, we had set times to wake up in the morning. We should adopt more consistent bed times at least from Sunday through Thursday nights. Engage kids and teens in a conversation about the plan for sleep. If there are days when children are not waking up to physically attend school, try to keep wake up times no more than an hour off to allow for more consistency in our overall sleep regulation.
  3. As part of your weekly plan, set aside time for exercise. This is particularly important for children who will have reduced physical education activities. Research about the positive impact of exercise on mood, anxiety and attention underscores how important movement is in the day.
  4. Work together with your child to identify a consistent work space. Needing a work space at home is not suddenly and dramatically forced on all of us like it was in the spring. Take the time to arrange a space that is as distraction-free as you can make it. It’s not necessary to run out and buy things as minimal distractions can allow your child to focus on their school work. Keep the supplies nearby in their own bin, basket or box top.
  5. Help your child to create visual schedules or checklists for the day. Include times for virtual school, times for completing assignments and steps to submit the work either electronically or packed for the next day in school. Keep checklists consistent throughout the week when possible.
  6. Plan and schedule breaks. For young kids, try to plan breaks from tasks for every 15-20 minutes. Incorporate movement or stretching when possible to improve focus. For older students, try to plan breaks every 30 minutes of sustained effort. Try to take a full break from screens rather than replacing a tablet/computer screen with a phone or video game.

Children and teens develop their executive functioning skills over time. Keep this in mind as you set up routines and expectations for your whole family as what is expected for a second grader should and will differ from a seventh grader. Again, the content can differ but the structure of using a checklist, planning a break, or working at a desk or table is the same.

Please remember: the pandemic has depleted our executive functioning systems, so it’s important that we are gentle and kind to ourselves. Think about simple and reasonable systems to organize yourself and your family.  And be flexible when we have to go back to the drawing board.

 

Resources:

Positive impact of exercise:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022347612009948

Executive Functioning tips and sample schedules:

https://www.smartbutscatteredkids.com/

 

About the Author: 

Dr. Creedon has expertise in evaluating children and teens with a variety of presenting issues. She is interested in uncovering an individual’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses to best formulate a plan for intervention and success. With experiences providing therapy and assessments, Dr. Creedon bridges the gap between testing data and therapeutic services to develop a clear roadmap for change and deeper of understanding of individual needs.

 

If you are interested in booking an evaluation with Dr. Creedon or another NESCA neuropsychologist, please fill out and submit our online intake form

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

Sitting Down to Work – Tips for Proper Set-up and Posture

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By: Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L

Occupational Therapist; Real-life Skills Program Manager and Coach

When working from home, it’s easy to ignore the important things that most people know about maintaining proper posture. The draw of a bed covered in pillows or a cozy nook on the couch can outweigh the rational knowledge that sitting with good posture will help us to stay focused, decrease back or joint pain, and help build a strong core. When it comes to children, they are often unaware of the ways that posture can affect their bodies and their work. They need cues, reminders and examples of the best way to sit to stay focused and be productive. In our last OT Tuesday blog, we discussed the importance of a child’s physical foundation, the core. When it comes to learning, a strong core helps with postural stability. As the start of a new school year draws near, let’s review some important things to consider about the environment and physical set-up for learning and the best positions for our students’ bodies.

Creating a space for learning helps to differentiate between school and home activities that, for many students, are currently happening in the same building. Here are some tips for setting up this space:

  • Find appropriately sized furniture. Children should have their feet on the ground when sitting at their desk! Tables should be at an appropriate height. Tables that are too tall tend to prompt children to hunch their shoulders or sit on their feet, while tables that are too small cause children to slouch and lean their heads on their hands.
  • Help them organize. Classrooms are built to help students grow their executive function skills, as teachers constantly help set up organizational systems and use tricks to keep students on track. Your child may benefit from color coded folders for each subject, a hard copy of their daily schedule (with pictures for younger kids!) or a visual timer.

There are also a few important things to remember to help with proper seated posture.

  • Use visual reminders. Your child may benefit from a picture of someone using proper seated position posted near their workspace. While they may still need a reminder every so often, having an image gives children a model to mimic.
  • The Rule of 90 Degrees. When sitting at a table, children’s hips, knees and ankles should all be positioned at 90 degrees. This helps to create a solid foundation. When children have a strong foundation and postural stability, they are set up to freely and accurately use their fine motor skills. Being grounded allows for easier writing, typing, cutting and manipulation of all the tools necessary for learning. Ideally, children’s elbows will also create a 90 degree angle.
  • Consider a slant board. Placing a computer or a paper on a slanted board can help students realize that they need to sit up straight, promote proper wrist placement and angle, and draw their eye gaze up from the desk. Writing on a vertical or slanted surface in general can help with the development of handwriting skills.
  • Stabilize that paper. Reminding students to use their non-dominant hand to hold their paper helps with precision and accuracy.
  • Allow them to switch it up! Some tasks really require a child to be sitting up straight, grounded and engaged. For example, a student who is hand-writing a final copy of their paragraph or using scissors for an art class will want to be cognizant of their bodies and how they are seated. In contrast, some activities provide opportunities to move around and change positions. If a student is reading a book for English Language Arts, they may want to lie on their belly or sit in a beanbag chair.
  • Take breaks. No matter how perfect a child’s seated posture is, they will benefit from movement and stretching breaks. Little bodies are built to move, bounce and wiggle!

Prioritizing posture as a child helps to build good habits, evenly distribute stress on the body’s muscle ligaments and joints, and create a strong, grounded foundation.

 

About the Author

Dr. Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in educational OT and functional life skills development. Dr. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as a part of the Real-life Skills Program within NESCA’s Transition Services team. Dr. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Having spent years delivering direct services at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, Dr. Bellenis has extensive background with school-based occupational therapy services.  She believes that individual sensory needs and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Core Strength and Stability: The Physical Foundation

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By: Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L

Occupational Therapist; Real-life Skills Program Manager and Coach

As our country heads into a period of unique learning, whether through a remote learning experience, a hybrid model or an in-person option with heightened rules and regulations, I find myself focusing on foundation. Foundation, simply defined, means, “the basis upon which something stands or is supported.” Currently, we are looking at a huge shift in how programs will run, how teachers will teach and how schools will support our children, but these principles are rooted in strong foundations. Our educators have knowledge, proven methods and an evidence base that allows for creativity, flexibility and evolution.

With regard to our students, foundational skills are the basics that help them feel secure and grounded enough to tackle the more individualized and creative aspects of learning. It is, in part, due to these foundational skills that many of our surprisingly resilient children have handled the COVID-19 pandemic with more flexibility and grace than the adults in their lives.

Today, let’s highlight the physical foundation that supports a child throughout their day, the core. Anatomically, the core refers to the transverse abdominis, internal and external oblique muscles, rectus abdominis, and the multifidus and erector spinae. This group of muscles holds a child upright when they are sitting at their seat, standing in line and running around on the playground. It is one of the foundational elements that promotes healthy motor development. Having a strong and active core makes it easier for a child to use their fine motor muscles with intent, stay alert for the duration of a class or a Zoom session, and develop healthy postural habits. Occupational therapists are trained to determine whether these activities are being affected by a weak core and if there is a need for intervention. Teachers and parents who spend substantial time with our children may want to be aware of and look out for the clues and signals of core instability, which include:

  • Compensatory strategies for stability – These are the subconscious ways that children compensate for core weakness. Essentially, they are bad habits that initially help to keep kids from getting too fatigued to participate in activities, but can have negative long-term effects. Some common examples include “W-sitting” and holding a breath during activities that require strength.
  • Leaning on anything and everything – Some children sit and lean their head on their hands or the desk when they write, lean against adults when standing up or sitting on a couch, and lean on furniture or tables when they are standing at home. These same students often slouch down in their seats and hunch their shoulders forward when they stand. This could signify a weak core.
  • Difficulty with balance – The inability to stay balanced and upright may be due to core instability. Many children are still developing the ability to run, jump, walk across a balance beam and stand on one foot, but if they seem to be falling over or losing control of their body more frequently than their peers, a weak core may be the culprit. These balance issues may also be apparent when a child is doing daily activities, such as getting dressed, putting on shoes or getting in and out of a car.
  • Difficulty with fine motor tasks – Sometimes children have a strong core and still have weak fine motor skills; however, often a weak core is exacerbating fine motor deficits. There is a little phrase that goes, “proximal stability for distal mobility” that is used by therapists, yogis and personal trainers alike. This means that it is important to have strength and stability at the core to easily move and control the muscles in our arms and legs.

Notably, helping a child to build their core is not always as simple as doing a few targeted exercises. While pure muscle strength may be the root cause of instability, it is not the only possibility. Other causes include poor alignment of the ribcage and pelvis, the need for some neuromuscular reeducation to help children engage the right muscles, and breathing habits that interfere with proper muscle use. If you feel like core weakness may be interfering with your child’s success, it may be worth seeking an occupational therapy assessment or speaking to your school’s occupational therapist about how to help them feel secure, sturdy and grounded. We can all benefit from a strong foundation.

 

About the Author

Dr. Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in educational OT and functional life skills development. Dr. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as a part of the Real-life Skills Program within NESCA’s Transition Services team. Dr. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Having spent years delivering direct services at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, Dr. Bellenis has extensive background with school-based occupational therapy services.  She believes that individual sensory needs and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.